shenzhen new year’s flower market

Shenzhen’s largest and oldest new year’s flower market is located on Aiguo Road, which has been closed for the bustling street fair. For a good quarter mile, several hundred venders hawk fresh and artificial flowers, Brazilian turtles, Chinese medicine, and plastic bubble hammers that read “Diaoyu Island belongs to China”. To join the festive multitudes, take the Third Line Subway to  the Cuizhu Station and exit onto Yijing Road. Follow the crowds one block to the Main Gate, where photo opportunities abound. So go and get your snake on! Portraits, below:

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xiasha plaza

This afternoon, I sat in Xiasha Plaza watching children and their caretakers. The plaza is vast and the people hug the edges, chatting in the shade. The coi pond is particularly popular.

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gaoling: shenzhen’s eastern periphery

Episode 13 of The Great Transformation, takes us to Gaoling Village (高岭村), which is located on Qiniang Mountain at Shenzhen’s eastern most edge on the Dapeng Peninsula.

The story of Overseas Chinese Chen Jiageng (陈嘉庚) opens the episode, connecting the history of Shenzhen’s eastern periphery to early modern Chinese nationalism. An ethnic Hakka, Chen Jiageng raised funds among to construct the Jimei School in his hometown Jimei Xiamen. For his nationalist efforts, Mao Zedong referred to Chen Jiageng as being “the banner of Overseas Chinese, the glory of the race (华侨旗帜,民族光辉)”.

Settled over 400 years ago by Hakka migrants, the layout of Gaoling reflected the founders need for safety and arable land. The village houses were located deep in the mountains, while village fields were located at the foot of the mountain. Every morning, villagers went down the mountain to work their fields and every evening, they returned to the relative safety of their homes.

The architecture of Gaoling reflected the agonistic relations between Hakka and local (本地 boon day [H], bendi [M], pundi [C]) peoples during the 19th Century. In fact, between 1855 and 1867, relations disintegrated into open conflict during the Punti-Hakka Clan Wars. During the early 20th Century, the village housed anti-Japanese troops, who were led by Hong Kong born Liu Peidai.

As in Xiamen, Gaoling villagers who lived overseas donated funds to build a school in their hometown. Over the course of the village’s history, Gaoling villagers immigrated to Singapore, Holland, the United States, and Canada, and many more lived in Hong Kong. Importantly, the Overseas Chinese funded improvements to their hometown, including modernizing the water system. The Euro-Chinese style of the school architecturally reflected these migrations and returns.

沓饼节: the second annual pounded biscuit festival

Yesterday, Bao’an District organized the second annual pounded biscuit festival (沓饼节). Pounded biscuits are a traditional local sweet that are especially popular at Chinese New Year’s. It so happens that a Shenzhen brand, 合成号 has been making said biscuits since 1901. The company celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2011, and to kick off its next century, in 2012, it became the sponsor of Shenzhen’s latest festival.

Local historian, Mr. Liao Honglei (廖虹雷) invited me to join the celebration. Mr. Liao curated the event and has been active promoting local Chinese culture. He is particularly attentive to cultural differences between Cantonese, Hakka, and Chaozhou settlements. Shenzhen inhabitants from outside Guangdong, refer to Cantonese as “baihua (白话)”, or local language. In contrast, Mr. Liao makes a point of calling each of these cultural strands by their official names, Guangfu (广府 literally provincial capital of Guangdong), Hakka, and Chaozhou in order to draw attention to Bao’an’s heterogeneous roots.

Also present was special guest, Professor Wu Bing’an (乌丙安), an 86-year old specialist in Chinese folklore. Professor Wu began his discussion by explaining why he opposes calling Chinese New Year “Spring Festival”. On his analysis, festival (节 jie) refers to a date on the calendar. In contrast, year (年 nian) refers to a period of time. Thus, jie mark the passage of time within a given nian. Professor Wu said that in order to leave one year and enter the next, Chinese people need sound and color. After praising the reintroduction of noisy, pounding to make New Year’s biscuits, he mentioned that firecrackers were the traditional “sound” for sending off and greeting the new year. Professor Wu also complained that too many safety restrictions had made Chinese New Year too quiet.

Impressions of the pounded biscuit festival, below.

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egalitarian architecture

One of the more interesting architectural continuities between Maoist Tangtou and Handshake Baishizhou is the ideology of egalitarianism (平均主义).

When Tangtou villagers first came to Baishizhou in 1959, they gave up their rural status and became members of the Shahe Farm (沙河农场). As members of the Farm, their hukou status was “non-rural (非农)”. This meant that they had rights to socialist welfare benefits, including housing, a salary, a rice allocation, and education for their children. In turn, they gave up their land rights. All this, even though they continued to do agricultural labor. Thus, as a architectural typology, Tangtou’s flat houses were not rural buildings — traditional or modern — but rather socialist dormitories.

According to the Maoist planned economy, non-rural members of socialist work units were entitled to dormitory housing, or “one houselhold, one room (一户一间)”. Within these dormitories, all facilities were the same — the same size sleeping and communal areas, the same number of windows, and the same access to the collective canteen and outhouses, differences in family size, notwithstanding. This type of dormitory construction was the architectural manifestation of a larger egalitarian ideology.

Of course, architectural egalitarianism was relative to regions as well as local resources. For example, the dormitories that Tangtou villagers built in Baishizhou were one story structures made of cement admixtures, wooden beams, and Hakka technology. After the canteen system broke down, families constructed small stoves outside their front doors, but continued to share nearby outhouses and wells. In contrast, dormitories in cities ranged from buildings of stacked, one-room efficiencies with a bathroom at the end of the hallway to buildings of multiple room apartments. In the colder northern cities, the decision to turn on and off central heating for everyone in a dormitory was an extension of this theory as was the decision not to provide central heating to dormitories south of the Yangtze River.

The construction of urban villages in Shenzhen has been an extension of architectural egalitarianism in the post Mao era. All handshakes were built on plats of 10 X 10 meters. To insure equal access to sunlight, there is a mandatory distance of 3 meters on the east-west axis between buildings and a distance of 8 meters on the north south axis. This mandated layout is the basic grid of an urban village. Moreover, when juxtaposed against older settlements, including rural dormitories like Tangtou or village settlements at Hubei, for example, the layout of a handshake settlement extends and often further rationalizes the egalitarianism of the previous layout.

This form of development has brought with it two urban planning conundrums:

  1. The 10 X 10 grid, with its mandatory distances of 3 and 8 meters between buildings pre-empts the efforts to put in adequate roads. 3 meters is small enough that handshakes have grown closer together — albeit without touching — on the east-west axis. At the same time, 8 meters is only wide enough to accommodate one traffic lane, which often gets jammed during deliveries or when too many motorcycles dart through.
  2. Public space and access to main roads is at a premium within the settlements. At Tangtou, for example, the large basketball court in front of the 59 dormitories is the one large space, where children and older people can meet outside. At night this area becomes a night market with more business than those areas in the Baishizhou alleys. Likewise, the roads that connect Baishizhou to Shennan Road are also the most profitable because they have storefronts in areas with large numbers of pedestrians.

The ongoing ruralization of Tangtou (and other urban villages  neighborhoods) has had paradoxical ideological effects. On the one hand, thinking of Tangtou as rural empowered Tangtou residents to make handshake land grabs. On the other hand, thinking of Tangtou as rural continues to justify the exclusion of Tangtou residents from discussions of future development, differing to the expertise of “urban” intellectuals and authorities. Moreover, the urban planning problems presented by Tangtou are considered effects of “rural” and “traditional” thinking. However, Tangtou is as “rural” and as “traditional” as Greenwich Village, NYC. The current built environment of Mao-era dormitories and post Mao handshakes is itself a product of non-rural socialism, first as the Shahe Farm and then as the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone.

And there’s the rub: what does it mean that “rural” and “traditional” Tangtou Baishizhou has come to represent all that is good and problematic about Shenzhen’s “urban villages”?  More generally, what are we to make of Maoist egalitarianism — both its continued appeal to the broad masses of Chinese people and its problematic manifestations — when we confuse it with a Chinese past that never happened?

tianmian celebrates 20 years of incorporation

Yesterday evening, Tianmian Industries Ltd (田面实业股份有限公司) celebrated 20 years of incorporation, simultaneously confirming the group’s new status as a corporation and the corporation’s status as the continuation of Tianmian Village. The celebration achieved this sense of historic continuity through the sequencing of socialist and traditional customs, including the presentation of and speeches by Tianmian, Fuhua Precinct, and Futian District leaders, which was followed by singing and dancing performances, a demonstration of Bruce Lee style kongfu by one of Bruce Lee’s students, and pencai, a local specialty that is only eaten at collective ceremonies. The speeches and performances took place on a stage in the vip area, while two large LED screens had been set up throughout the common area so that guests could watch the entertainment while eating.

Another important ceremonial function was to demarcate borders both within Tianmian and between Tianmian and outside communities. The 137-table event occupied  most of the main road into the village (directly off Shennan Road) as well as adjacent public areas, dividing Tianmian into two sections: the ceremony area and the rest of the neighborhood. Importantly, only Tianmian Ltd has the authority to cordon off public areas for private ceremonies. The ceremony area itself was subdivided into a vip area for leaders, their families and guests and a common area for Tianmian stockholders, their families and guests. Tianmian guards prevented non-guests from passing the red cordons.

Rituals such as these and the concomitant right to occupy public space are perhaps why we continue to speak of Tianmian Village as a village. In point of fact, we were celebrating the dissolution of Tianmian Village and its reconstitution as Tianmian Ltd. In ritual terms, however, the celebration clearly established Tianmian Village as the host and hegemonic subject of this territory and Tianmian Ltd as the contemporary manifestation of the village. What’s more, throughout the evening the gaze of outsiders — many of whom live in Tianmian housing stock — reinforced the sense of Tianmian as a vibrant and recognizable collectivity.

These rituals are particularly important in Tianmian because the corporation has not built traditional village buildings, such as an ancestral hall or a temple. In obvious contrast to Tianmian’s appropriation of public space, when larger village-corporations hold pencai ceremonies, they set their tables in designated village plazas that are surrounded by traditional buildings. In Xiasha, for example, the large village plaza includes an ancestral hall, a temple, a public theater, a traditional garden, and a path to the Xiasha Museum. Consequently, where Xiasha relies not only on ritual, but also on the built environment to reinforce communal solidarity, Tianmian’s village identity remains as such primarily through what is commonly called “non-material culture (非物质文化)”, or rituals.

It will be interesting to see, say in twenty or fifty years, how strong Tianmian’s sense of village solidarity remains and to compare that solidarity to that of a village like Xiasha, where the construction of village architecture sets the stage for village rituals. In other words, although Shenzhen has been seen as a laboratory for economic and social experimentation, we might specify further, and watch the ongoing reconstruction of traditional solidarities despite and within the maelstrom of modernization. Impressions from Tianmian’s 20th anniversary celebration, below.

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anthropologizing

So, a juxtaposition of Baishizhou and Denali, which may be achieved through visual flattening, but as lived required movement through time and space — from Shekou to Hong Kong international by way of Shenzhen Bay checkpoint to SeaTac and then on to Anchorage and passage on the Alaskan Railroad.

I look at snapshots taken here and there, searching for commonalities, for what we might call human universals, which Donald Brown has defined as “those features of culture, society, language, behavior, and mind that, so far as the record has been examined, are found among all peoples known to ethnography and history.”

There is, of course, the eye of the beholder — mine — which seems drawn (here, at least) to pink, but all this does is raise the question of whether or not what I experience in each of these places is what other people also experience. In Chinese poetics, this common — unquestionably and recognizably human — response would be called yijing (意境), which literally means “idea scape” and denotes the moment of union between interior and exterior states of being.  意, for example, is composed of characters meaning “sound (音) and heart (心)”, while 境 is composed of characters for “earth as soil or land (土)” and “final or complete (竟)”, which here functions as a sound marker for jìng.

What are the respective yijing‘s of Baishizhou and Denali? And can we confidently generalize our responses to say, “Just so and how could it be otherwise?”

These questions matter because both Baishizhou and Denali are the focus of conservation efforts, albeit of a different ilk. Both discussions assume a common response to a particular environment. Moreover, in both discussions, one’s response to the environment is taken as an expression of one’s humanity and there, of course, is where the debate rages.

At Baishizhou, the current discussion of how to raze and rebuild an urban village focuses on the experience of mass urbanization and the need for access to housing, food, and transit networks. The debate has two assumes. First, the debate assumes that inequality is a defining feature of human life and that the purpose of social life is to ascertain that level and take measures to insure that people do not live in inhuman conditions. In turn, the content of the debate is over where to draw the line between human, subhuman, and inhuman living conditions. Second, the debate also assumes that urban living is a desirable form of life because it results in access to cultural goods, such as medical care and education by way of intentionally crafted environments, such as hospitals, schools, restaurants, and entertainment districts. As debated, these two assumptions are hierarchically ranked into the Maslovian categories of “basic needs” and “higher needs”. Thus, as one debates, one is not simply drawing lines between this life and that, but also and more importantly, revealing one’s humanity as a function of social responsibility.

Likewise, at Denali a general assumption and its implementation shape debate, but here over the nature and value of wilderness. On the one hand, the debate assumes that the experience of wilderness reveals and cultivates the wild, untamed spirituality that makes us human and that the purpose of social life is to maintain and create spaces where people can realize this spirituality. In turn, one’s love of wilderness functions in this debate as a marker of one’s spirituality. On the other hand, the debate also assumes that wilderness occurs in the absence of human settlements, such that in order to build human settlements one must transform wilderness. As debated, these two assumptions are also ranked hierarchically in terms of what is essentially human (nature) and acceptable transformations of wilderness (culture). Thus, as one debates, one is not simply drawing lines between this life and that, but also and more importantly, revealing one’s humanity as a function of wild spirituality.

It is possible to note the Chineseness of the Baishizhou debate (all that Confucianism going down), just as it is easy to remark on how much Emerson and Muir continue to shape American understandings of our place in the world. And therein lies the challenge of cross-cultural debates about what it means to be human in a world where Baishizhou and Denali cross paths, so to speak. The question is not so much either / or — which is a more accurate definition of what it means to be human: social being or wild spirituality, but rather the question seems to be: what might the Baishizhou debate teach us about the cultural place of wilderness, and what might Denali remind us about the limits to human settlements?